Good advices?

 [First published in Local Government Chronicle, 24 November 2020]

Choosing the right advisors is one of the most important decisions that political leaders make, as recent Downing Street dramas have illustrated. This is perhaps particularly true for the mayor of London, who unlike the prime minister or a council leader does not have the support of a party group, but only the watchful eye of a scrutinising London Assembly.

So, alongside City Hall’s expert staff, mayors need mates; their own people who can advise and represent them in such a huge city. The mayor of London can bring in 12 appointees, and the ways in which the three mayors to date have appointed and worked with their teams have been indicative both of their strengths and their weaknesses – as detailed in London’s Mayor at 20, a collection of essays, analyses and interviews looking back over the past two decades of the capital’s mayoralty.

When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, he came with a gang of advisors who had worked with him for many years – from the Greater London Council, from activism since then, from his parliamentary office. Most had worked with him when he had decided to run as an independent following Labour’s bungled attempt to fix candidate selection. Within weeks of his election, Ken had advertised posts as ‘policy advisors’, and many of these were filled by familiar faces.

The team were all broadly from the political left, albeit from different denominations; Simon Fletcher, Ken’s chief of staff and former parliamentary researcher, brokered agreement on priorities and positioning. The mayor used to describe advisors such as Neale Coleman, John Ross, Jude Woodward and Lee Jasper as being like ministers – with full authority to represent his views. The team was consistent through Ken’s two terms, with the mayor showing loyalty (and damaging his 2008 re-election campaign) when advisors became embroiled in newspaper allegations of cronyism.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Johnson had no deep roots in London politics, and had only been an MP since 2001. There was no gang waiting in the wings when the ebullient loner was elected in 2008. Nick Boles, then Conservative MP for Grantham and founder of the Policy Exchange thinktank, worked with the new mayor to appoint deputy mayors.

The initial tranche proved shaky: one was prosecuted for fiddling expenses, another was found to have fabricated his CV, and a third senior advisor made comments on race issues that led to swift resignation. Tim Parker – a corporate restructuring guru appointed as chief of staff and first deputy mayor – left when it became clear that there wasn’t the scope or appetite for the application of his specialised skill set, and that Boris wanted to take decisions as mayor rather than acting as a media-friendly figurehead.

Other appointments were more stable, some becoming long-term Johnson allies. Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for culture and education, followed Johnson to Downing Street, as did chief of staff Eddie Lister, who is now temporarily filling the same role at 10 Downing Street. Lister, and Simon Milton the former Westminster City Council leader who preceded him at City Hall, took a relatively light-touch approach to policy co-ordination, leaving other deputy mayors, such as Stephen Greenhalgh, Kit Malthouse and Isabel Dedring, with space to develop policy positions, but also giving a looser sense of direction than under Livingstone.

If Sadiq Khan drew one lesson from Boris’s wobbly transition, it was not to make appointments too quickly. His deputy mayors were appointed painstakingly over his first six months in office. Senior local government figures such as James Murray and Jules Pipe, former mayor of Hackney, were appointed alongside former GLA officials Justine Simons and Shirley Rodrigues, and external figures such as human rights barrister Matthew Ryder, shadow transport minister Heidi Alexander and former Home Office special advisor Sophie Linden.

These appointments have been carefully judged, but the deputies are not close to Sadiq and his decision-making in the way that Ken’s were, or eventually Boris’s became. Less prominent are the inner circle of advisors who agree policy positioning: chief of staff David Bellamy, director of policy Nick Bowes, and communications and external affairs directors Leah Kreitzman, Paddy Hennessy and Jack Stenner.

The London mayoralty is an unusual role: it can be a springboard or a dead-end; it suits loners and mavericks, but requires constant coalition-building; it gives extensive powers of patronage and appointment, alongside singular accountability. It is a job to which the incumbent is elected alone, but not one which any mayor could hope to carry out alone. Appointing advisors and deputies is an early but critical decision, requiring trust and judgement. For a political loner like Boris Johnson it is a fraught business, and one that has given him a rocky start both as mayor of London and as prime minister.

5 ways mayors have changed London (Nov 2018)

[Originally published on Centre for London blog, 7 November 2018]

This year, the London Mayoralty turns 18 years old and ‘comes of age’. During this time, London’s three Mayors – Ken, Boris, Sadiq – have used the limited levers that they had – sometimes to breaking point –  to improve the city.

But what impact have they actually had? Here’s five ways that the Mayors have transformed our city since the Mayoralty was established.

1. Leading London’s urban renaissance

The London Plan, as adapted and evolved by the three Mayors, set a world standard in promoting smart growth, sustainable development, urban renaissance.  The plans committed to accommodating growth within the city, focusing on public transport walking and cycling, developing ever more ambitious housing targets, renewing the public realm, and harnessing the dynamics of development to create a fairer and greener city.

2. Driving transport innovation

The Mayor’s ability to integrate transport and development – the envy of other cities like New York – has been central to the London Plan.  But Transport for London – chaired by all three Mayors in a signal of its significance – has also led policy innovation in transport – from the original congestion charging zone, to bike rentals, to the Oyster card and contactless payment, to the ultra-low emissions zone.

3. Providing civic leadership

The Mayors have also provided a focal point for civic leadership. This has not just been a matter of fronting bids for major events, and representing the city in trade fairs and Whitehall spending rounds. It has also sadly meant leading the city at times of tragedy – after the London bombings in 2005, and the terrorist attacks and Grenfell Tower fire that the city faced last summer. The Mayors have, with differing emphases and tone, presented London and the world with an image of capital that is inclusive, tolerant, diverse, open, united.  It’s an aspect of the Mayor’s role that is not mentioned in any statute, but eighteen years on you wonder how we lived without it.

4. Doing deals with central Government

Having a Mayor has enabled London to do deals with central Government on how to finance and deliver major infrastructure projects.  These deals – on the London 2012 Olympics and legacy, on Crossrail and on the Northern Line Extension – have helped London to accommodate its growth, to weather the storms of the financial crisis, and to transform areas benighted by decades of underinvestment – while also building world-leading capacity in major projects.

5. Making the case for more power

And the Mayors have secured new powers through statute.

  • In 2006, the Mayor was given powers to stage the London 2012 Olympics – which was fortunate given that he and the government had committed to do so the previous year.
  • In 2007, planning powers and housing powers were strengthened, as was the London Assembly’s role in approving mayoral appointments.
  • In 2011, policing oversight – always a bone of contention between the Mayor and Home Secretary was reformed, as the Metropolitan Police Authority was replaced by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime
  • Also in 2011 the Localism Act empowered the London Assembly to reject mayoral strategies, and passed control of HCA and LDA land to the Mayor, delegated the affordable housing budget, enabled the Mayor to establish Mayor Development Corporations – shifting the focus of the GLA from strategy to delivery.But progress since 2011 has been faltering.  There have been devolution deals on the Adult Education Budget, agreements on health and social care, and discussions on justice devolution.  But despite two London finance commissions, and strong representations from the Mayor and London Councils, further devolution feels like unfinished business.

And at no time since the Mayoralty was set up 18 years ago have the challenges facing the capital looked more daunting. Local government services are under increasing pressure. A cooling housing market is leading to a slowdown in the construction and availability of affordable homes. Migration from the EU and across the country is falling. And all of this before Brexit.

Against that background, we need to rethink the way London operates for new times. We need to continue to make the case for new powers for the Mayor – across housing, taxes, and skills, to help London meet the challenges ahead.

From adhocracy to algorithm – notes on mayoral style (July 2018)

 [Originally published in OnLondon, 7 July 2018]

Halfway through his first term, there are some curious paradoxes about Sadiq Khan’s tenure as Mayor of London. He has a solid record of announcements under his belt, from a remixed London Plan to cash for affordable housing and eye-catching initiatives such as the borough of culture or ballots on estate regeneration.

While there’s a mounting funding crisis in Transport for London, initiatives such as the Hopper fare for buses have been successful, even if pedestrianising Oxford Street has fallen foul of Westminster Council politics. And Sadiq has campaigned for a capital-friendly Brexit, been vigorous in promoting London’s openness, and appointed well-respected and diverse deputy mayors and committees of advisors.

And yet. And yet. Despite assiduous media management, there are some voices – from Greater London Authority officers to housebuilders to senior borough executives – who talk of the Mayor as remote, inaccessible, disengaged. You can’t meet with him or speak with him, they say. You think you’ve agreed something with a deputy mayor, they complain, but then Sadiq does his own thing. It’s all smoke and mirrors, run by a tight gang around the Mayor who already have their eye on his next big job.

It’s worth pausing to ask whether these murmurs of discontent are simply the protests of the former in-crowd feeling the chill of a change in administration and a significant change in political direction. There’s certainly some of this, and you could argue that previous mayors were perhaps too eager to court housebuilders to little effect in terms of housing delivery.

But I think there’s something more – a change in style, or even mode of governance. Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone both governed in a highly personal manner; they wielded their authority in a way that the sociologist Max Weber might have described as “charismatic”. For Ken, leadership was a matter of drawing together the factions and alliances that had enabled him to rise to the top of the Greater London Council, doing deals with developers even when he felt like bringing a long spoon, schmoozing the blazered sportsocrats of the International Olympic Committee, and alternately raging at government and wheedling powers and resources from it.

Boris’s regime was even more personalised. From successes such as the promotion of the “Olympicopolis” legacy plan for the Olympic Park – now renamed Eastbank – to more questionable follies such as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the Garden Bridge and Emirates cable car, his most prominent initiatives were high risk, opportunistic deals, bearing only a glancing relationship to mayoral powers or remit, but using sheer force of personality to lever resources from high net worth individuals and corporations.

All of which seems very far away from Sadiq’s approach. He’s not interested in doing deals, you sense, but in tightening and adjusting the policy levers at his disposal to secure the results he wants. His governance rests on the “legal-rational” (Weber’s term again) basis of the mayoral powers and remit, with decisions taken calmly and rationally – albeit with a keen eye for politics – rather than on the basis of deals done personally or with subordinates.

It’s a fundamentally different model, and one that other people in City Hall (perhaps lower down the pecking order and therefore less likely to miss direct access to the Mayor) relish. One said to me, “With Boris, you got the feeling that he had a highly-tuned machine that he couldn’t be bothered to steer. With this lot, you get clear direction, and authority to go out and do things.” It is also probably more like the technocratic mayoralty that I and fellow members of the transition team expected before the first mayoral election in 2000, when we played “war games” about how the newly established Mayor and London Assembly would operate in practice.

Whether Sadiq’s approach will be more or less successful than his predecessors’ remains to be seen. A city cannot just be governed by deals with developers and ad hoc initiatives devised in Davos cloakrooms, but it probably can’t run like an algorithm either. The Mayor’s resources are limited, so he needs to work with investors and developers to build the city he wants. With a few exceptions, I applaud Sadiq’s policies. But I wonder how some of them will be implemented.

Sadiq\’s first 100 days

[Published in The Guardian, 15 August 2016]

Sadiq Khan’s first 100 days in office – officially marked today – have given an indication of the character of his mayoralty. There has been none of the drama of Ken Livingstone’s 2000 triumph against the Labour party machine, and his subsequent battle against partial privatisation of the tube. Nor has there been the chaos of Boris Johnson’s 2008 election, with deputy mayors arriving and departing with a regularity that would be the envy of many London commuters.
 
Instead, Khan’s arrival in office has been marked by a careful approach to appointments (taking care over these was Johnson’s parting advice to his successor) and astute leverage of the mayor’s public profile while the City Hall policy machine begins to grind through its rusty gears.

Launching a mayoral programme takes time, especially if you haven’t inherited much from your predecessor. Ken Livingstone, for whom I worked as private secretary for his first year in office, didn’t implement congestion charging until 2003 – three years after he was elected – with the Olympic Bid and London Plan following the next year.

In 2008, Livingstone wanted to return to office to implement free bike hire and collect the Olympic Flag from Beijing, but Boris’ election victory meant that these became his projects. By contrast, Boris knew he wasn’t coming back in 2016 – some would say he mentally checked out some time earlier – and left the cupboard pretty bare.

Khan has more than 200 manifesto commitments, and it has taken him time to appoint a team to focus on implementation, wrestling with the complex and only marginally coherent selection of agencies, strategies and duties that the mayor has accreted since 2000.

His appointments include a core group drawn from the campaign, including his chief of staff, David Bellamy, and policy directors Nick Bowes, Jack Stenner, Leah Kreitzmann and Patrick Hennessey. Observers describe them as a tight team who have worked together for a long time. There’s virtue in the familiarity and trust this engenders, but the experience of previous mayors suggests that not every campaigner can easily make the transition to administration.

Alongside them, Khan has appointed deputy mayors like Justine Simmons, James Murray, Val Shawcross, Sophie Linden and Jules Pipe. These are hardly household names, but are well known and generally well respected in London government circles. The mayor has also brought in outside experts, such as Rajesh Agrawal, tech entrepreneur and deputy mayor for business. The last few appointments are due to follow imminently, and the Centre for London has argued that they should include a chief digital officer to lead digital transformation across London government.

The mayor has made early announcements on air quality, which will be a priority area for action alongside housing, economic development, culture and social cohesion. The next big policy milestone will probably be in the autumn, when Khan sets out his vision for the new London Plan (which is unlikely to make it through its tortuous formal process, including public consultation and an ‘examination in public’, until 2019), and the other strategies that sit underneath it.

New rules on housing will be a big focus, and there are already background murmurings that Sadiq risks being boxed in by commitments on affordability. Some of these murmurings come from housebuilders and developers – and they would say that wouldn’t they? – but there clearly is some nervousness as the market feels the chilling effects of the post-referendum slowdown.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s team are focusing strongly on land held by Transport for London, which has the double challenge of needing to generate income to compensate for reduced government grant during a fares freeze, as well as meeting the mayor’s affordability policies.

But it is Brexit that has dominated the mayor’s first months. Khan moved straight from the mayoral campaign to the remain campaign, and since the referendum result has become the voice for London’s pro-EU majority, arguing for London to have a seat at the negotiating table, reforming the London Finance Commission to seek more local control of taxes, and broadcasting the message that #LondonIsOpen to the world.

It is easy to dismiss campaigning and public appearances as froth on the serious business of governance, but in the fraught days of summer 2016, the mayor of London’s role in leading his nine million citizens is perhaps as important as providing them with services, initiatives and strategies. These will need to follow in time, and there are huge challenges ahead for London, but the mayor has made a sure-footed start.

Inertia creeps

I was in Chicago last weekend, at an event sponsored by the Council for the United States and Italy. The conference was about the challenges of city growth – housing, transport, environmental sustainability, government – and involved people from public and private sectors, academia, the military, and non-governmental organisations.

One theme that emerged was scepticism about the ability of elected city leaders to commit to long-term change, given the short-term imperative of electoral cycles. Some of us from public sector backgrounds suggested that this may not be as much of a problem as it seemed: given the much-criticised inertia of bureaucracies, 180-degree reverses in policy were much rarer than electoral rhetoric would suggest.

Which brings me to Boris Johnson\’s retreat from his plans to cancel the western extension of London\’s congestion charging zone. Despite commissioning a fresh consultation exercise, the capital costs of redrawing the zone, and the loss of revenue that would follow, clearly seemed too onerous. You can\’t imagine that any mayor other than Ken Livingstone would have introduced congestion charging in 2000, but now it is in place, it looks like it\’s here to stay.

Similarly, Labour did little to undo the Conservative settlement of the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of some trade union legislation, and indeed built on many of the elements that they had most strenuously opposed in opposition. And you can only wonder whether an incoming Conservative administration would undo much of the current government\’s programme, from ID cards to Bank of England independence, against which they have so heartily inveighed.

Inertia is a mixed blessing. I railed against it when I was younger and today my views remain largely partisan (bureaucrats can be either valiant voices for common sense or obstructive dullards, depending on context). Famously frustrating to politicians like Tony Blair, inertia does perhaps serve to dissuade incoming governments from spending too much time unstitching their predecessors\’ policies.

Rather than an erratic see-saw of reversals, politics becomes a relatively smooth progression of cumulative change, for good or ill, moving on slowly. Perhaps, when Tony Blair complained of \”scars on his back\”, it was a back-handed tribute to the ability of the civil service (where nobody ever gets sacked for doing nothing) to temper change with continuity, to save us from relentless alternation.

This is conservative, to be sure, but \’conservative\’ as eloquently defined by Michael Oakeshott, not as cooked up in crazy-eyed think tanks: \”To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.\”

Personality politics

London voters will now have received the candidate leaflet for Thursday’s mayoral election. Reading some of the policies in the document, you wonder whether to laugh or cry. Among the many powers that the Mayor of London does not have are the power to stop immigration, to pull troops out of Iraq, to declare St George’s Day a national holiday, to promote marriage, or to insist all employers pay the London Living Wage.

But the London mayoralty is not really about policy. Try as they might, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are hard-pushed to find serious areas of disagreement: pledging to \”consult residents…on whether we should keep the Western [congestion charge] extension\”, as Johnson has promised, is hardly an ideological rallying call.

The London Mayor is primarily a city manager: he or she needs to be able to represent the capital, to strike deals, to make things work better. This means having a clear idea of what London needs, and the political smarts to be able to lobby, haggle and argue with a jealous central government to get it. It’s personality politics, but it’s far from trivial.

This is where a difference begins to emerge between the two front-runners. Ken Livingstone has secured more powers for the Mayor, commitment to Crossrail, and billions of pounds of investment to fund the London 2012 Games and legacy. Admittedly this has been a Labour mayor working with a Labour government, but the relationship has not always been an easy one.

An incumbent always has the advantage of pointing to his record (though Livingstone\’s opponents have found plenty of ammunition there too). But some of the signals sent out by the Boris Johnson campaign are worrying. While Livingstone’s inner circle of advisors are not people who feel particularly at home in the Labour Party headquarters, Johnson’s campaign has been closely managed by some of his party’s top strategists, from Lynton Crosby to Nick Boles.

In addition, some newspapers have pointed to Johnson as a poster-boy for socially-liberal cameronite conservatism, a one-man vanguard for the coming general election. Johnson is insisting that he is his own man (just as Steve Norris did in previous elections). But it is hard to see in him the same cussedly independent streak, and willingness to denounce his ‘comrades’, that has endeared Livingstone to so few people in his own party and, at least in previous elections, to so many people in London.

Whatever policies the mayoral candidates espouse, the test of their mettle will be how they deal with government. Whether the government in question is Conservative or Labour should be almost immaterial. The capital needs a Mayor whose interests lie in securing the best for London, not in letting City Hall be used as a second front in Westminster’s wars.

de Pfwaffl

Boris Johnson was a sad sight on the Newsnight debate last night. Like a whipped cur, he shrank back, avoided saying anything, and cast around for fences to sit on.

Would he get rid of the western extension to the congestion charge? Well, yes. Or maybe no. \”I don\’t think it\’s working, but I\’m in favour of consultation. I will abide by what the people say.\” There are several problems here, apart from sheer issue-ducking. Consultation is not a decision-making deliberative process; it is a way of seeking public views on policies being proposed by politicians. It attracts only interested parties, and cannot confer a mandate. That\’s what elections are for.

It was interesting comparing this triangulated guff with the talk given by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, about ten days ago. Asked why he had moved so quickly to pedestrianise Rua de Flores (the project was completed in three days), Lerner replied that, once a decision was taken, it should be implemented fast to avoid self-doubt and bureaucratic obstruction and, most importantly, to prevent the whole discussion from starting again. Mayors rule. Or at least, if they don\’t, they have no place being mayors.

But Alexander Boris de Pfwaffl Johnson was not finished. He had more issues to dodge, and those issues were going to be dodged. How much would scrapping bendy buses cost? Less than replacing them with hybrid buses. Was the Mayor paid enough, too much or too little. Hard to tell.

You could not imagine a greater gift for Livingstone and Paddick. Against this mop-topped embodiment of evasive action, they could hardly look anything less than decisive and statesmanlike.

Bedfellows make strange politics

Amidst the second wave of Gilligantics (I think one can describe the man in question as having waves), the mayoral candidates and their proxies are setting out their pitches and sharpening their knives.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have, at one level, the same aim: they want the voters to take Boris Johnson seriously. Ken Livingstone has always emphasised the serious (and in his view seriously worrying) core behind Boris\’s bumblingly benign facade. Monday\’s poll showed that he needs to persuade wavering Labour party voters that a Johnson victory is a real possibility, and not a pretty one either.

So the two main candidates are locked in a p0-faced struggle for seriousness, a dullness decathlon (enough alliteration, ed.). Hence Livingstone\’s exclamations that \”this is not Big Brother\” and references to \’dog whistle\’ racism, hence Gordon Brown\’s craw-sticking emphasis on the serious nature of the Mayor\’s role, hence Jonathan Freedland\’s predictions of the decline of western civilisation in the case of a Johnson victory, hence Johnson\’s failure to say or do anything with a shred of wit or interest for several days.

Meanwhile, on the fringes, tactical alignments are being forged. Nick Cohen declares, with a hint of self-importance but also a grain of truth, that lefties should vote LibDem: if Brian Paddick comes third, his voters\’ second preferences may split equally between Johnson and Livingstone (or even favour Johnson as they did in Monday\’s poll), hence securing a Conservative victory. But if Livingstone comes third, his second preferences will almost all go to Paddick (errr, except those that Livingstone has already told to vote Green), hence securing a victory for Paddick.

The maths work, but the prospect of this level of switch away from Livingstone looks remote. That said, if the drip-drip-drip of insinuation and accusation continues, anything could happen.

Opening up

Following Jaspergate – or Jasper-ama to adopt Andrew Gilligan\’s more florid moniker – you can expect to hear a lot more about openness and accountability in the mayoral election campaign.

Boris Johnson and the Lib Dems had a first stab on successive days last week, variously pledging that they would make the City Hall register of interests public, would set up a code of conduct for mayoral advisers, would require them to attend question and answer sessions with the London Assembly, and would publish details of their responsibilities and contact details on the web.

Only some of this is new: elected officials already publish their register of interests (Livingstone\’s is here), and all staff (including mayoral advisers) are bound by a code of conduct and required to attend London Assembly hearings if summoned. Nevertheless, these proposals could make a difference to the openness of City Hall.

If they were implemented, that is. Readers with long memories may remember Ken Livingstone\’s Advisory Cabinet. This big-tent public committee was one of Livingstone\’s election pledges in 2000, and included Labour MPs Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Glenda Jackson (though not Frank Dobson), London Assembly members from all parties and assorted great and good from the worlds of race relations, disability and gay rights

The Advisory Cabinet met several times during Livingstone\’s first year in office (disconcertingly, this BBC Report of its first meeting includes a picture of an alarmingly chinless and younger me in the background). But after a while, initial enthusiasm faded, and with it the Advisory Cabinet: now a Google search brings up this ghost page.

The meetings had become, to use Bagehot\’s formulation, \’dignified\’ rather than \’efficient\’, with real decision-making and debate taking place behind closed doors. If Johnson or Paddick win, it will be interesting to see with how much gusto they follow through their current enthusiasm for flinging those doors open.